NHS: Staffing Levels

Part of Cat Welfare – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 11th December 2018.

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Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Minister (Education) 4:30 pm, 11th December 2018

We are seeing increasing problems around recruitment and retention in mental health services, which I will go on to. We know that nurses are heroes of our health service and that they will always voice their concerns.

A survey conducted by the RCN in 2017 had some deeply worrying results. More than half of the nurses said that care was compromised on the last shift and more than 40% said that no action was taken when they raised concerns about staffing. If there was any doubt about the commitment of nurses, nine in 10 were not paid for extra unplanned time worked in the NHS. Unpaid time worked by nurses in the NHS saves the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds a year.

I am not just talking about nurses and the worryingly low levels of recruitment. The Royal College of Physicians informs me that in Yorkshire and Humber 36% of physician consultant posts advertised were not filled. Across the UK, a total of 45% of advertised consultant posts went unfilled, due to the lack of suitable applicants. The RCP believes that we need to double the medical school places to 15,000 a year to alleviate this problem in the long term and it is seriously hard to disagree with that assessment.

The RCP is also calling for investment in public health initiatives, which I am sure is another thing that we all agree on. The desperate need for more mental health staff is well reported. The consultant psychiatrist vacancy rate in the northern and Yorkshire region, which Batley and Spen falls under, is 11.7%, which is higher than the average consultant psychiatry vacancy rate in England. One in 10 consultant psychiatrist posts are vacant. Doctors specialising in mental health are uniquely placed to look at a person’s brain, body and psyche. Such specialists will only become more important, so I ask the Minister to update Members on his plans to meet the target of 570 junior doctors specialising in psychiatry by 2020-21 and to say what plans he has to ensure that all trainee doctors have experience of working in psychiatric settings?

The British Medical Association has provided information on the potential impact of Brexit on staffing levels in the NHS. Nearly 10% of doctors working in the UK are from the European economic area. Doctors, as well as many other professionals, make a massive contribution to our NHS. However, the BMA warns that many EEA doctors continue to feel unwelcome and uncertain about their future here. Given the uncertainty that we have seen in the past few days, I imagine that that feeling will not change any time soon. The results could be devastating, with more than a third of doctors from the EU considering moving away from our country. That is the last thing we need, as hospitals are already chronically understaffed, with more than one in four respondents to a BMA survey reporting that rota gaps are so serious and frequent that they cause significant problems for patient safety.

Alarmingly, some doctors feel bullied into taking on extra work. It is clear that something needs to change, particularly now we are in winter again. There are too few staff, who are too stretched, and trusts across the country are struggling to fill vacancies. However, in order to fix a problem, we need to know whose remit it is to provide a solution. Shockingly, there are no specific legal duties or responsibilities at UK Government level to ensure that health and social care providers have enough staff to provide safe and effective care to meet the needs of the population. Health Education England has some powers related to the higher education supply. In practice, however, those powers relate only to the funding for the 50% of their courses that nursing students spend on placements. Health Education England no longer commissions higher education university places, meaning that it is responsive to students signing up for nursing courses rather than proactively seeking them based on areas of need and workforce planning.

We know that the number of European workers in the NHS has fallen dramatically since the referendum. Mid Yorks recruited highly skilled workers from the Philippines, but delays to visa applications meant that 50% of them have now gone elsewhere and into other jobs. We need to do better than that.

The case is clear to me and to many others that we need a proactive and accountable power-holding body that makes robust assessments of population need, and uses that need to calculate the workforce requirements. No action has been taken to assess the level of population need for health and social care support now or in the future. Nobody has calculated how many nurses are needed to meet those needs safely and effectively. No workforce strategy is in place to set up the mechanism through which new registered nurses can be generated through a supply line.

Workforce plans are not consistently available and when they are they are based on affordability and finance, rather than on the expertise and skills mix of staff required to care for patients. Plans are limited in their ability to make effective change. Providers may identify a need for more nursing posts but then find themselves unable to fill them. Vacant posts stay vacant and gaps on the frontline are filled by more expensive bank and agency staff, and—as we heard from my hon. Friend Stephanie Peacock—by volunteers, or substituted lower-qualified staff. Patient care is left undone, with lengthening waiting lists.

That is the sad truth of where we are and when the Minister responds I would be grateful to know what plans are in place to enforce accountability for the NHS workforce. Simon Stevens has confirmed that the long-term plan for the NHS could not definitely deal with the NHS workforce and there are serious concerns that without investment a new plan will ultimately fail.

Six years on from the Health and Social Care Act 2012, it is still unclear which organisation is accountable for workforce strategy. Too often, no one is taking responsibility. Health Education England has been consulted but it has failed to deliver a workforce strategy. Now is the time for leadership and action, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister.